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Is Orchestra Still Worth it in Film?

One of the most important and moving parts of any film or TV production, is not the acting, dialogue, or even the setting, but the music playing in the background. There is always a melody matching the tone of each scene that plays, even when the audience is not purposefully noticing. Recently, there have been quite a few changes in the film industry, where the type of music has become synthesized and completely digital. This has sparked controversy, arguments, and meaningful conversations from both sides. There is no doubt, that orchestra is beautiful and can be a masterpiece in both film and concerts. While this is true, digital and synthesized music has come a long way to a point where film critics often find themselves really digging into the music to see if it is synthesized or performed by orchestra players. Although there are compelling arguments for both sides, digital music is not killing the orchestra music in film and is instead bringing another option for music in film on the table that is more affordable, relatable, and unique.

            Before introducing the argument and the claims for the argument, it is important to review the rich and extensive history behind orchestra music and performers in films. Orchestra in films have been utilized since the invention of slapstick comedies. Interestingly enough, according to one source, slapstick comedies in the early 1920s were not popular, so directors and film producers chose to create and write musicals which was the main reason that orchestra in film grew at an expedited rate (A Short History of Orchestral Music in Movies – Lubbock Symphony Orchestra). The same source also reviewed that orchestra music has changed within films to centralize a theme, tone, or a particular character. This can be seen in “the terrifying theme for the giant shark featured in Jaws, as well as the suspenseful and climactic piece used in The Good the Bad and the Ugly during the films’ final standoff” (A Short History of Orchestral Music in Movies – Lubbock Symphony Orchestra). People sat on the edge of their seats watching these moments. Was this because of the terrifying and interesting scenes and settings? Or was this really because of the dramatic and suspenseful music that placed the audience in the shoes of the characters in these films? Either way, orchestra in film has served a grand purpose, and while digitalized music and sounds are becoming more popular with more frequent uses in film, the orchestra will never die in films as many directors still want to create these effects with a full orchestra and original sheet music.

            Synthesized sounds have a bad reputation at the moment and yet are increasingly more affordable for film producers. The majority of films are actually never released in theaters. These films are typically created by students and small directors with minimal budgets. They typically cannot afford to pay a full orchestra to play live recorded unique music and sounds for films. Instead, many small-time directors choose to use digital sounds that can be searched for under their fingertips. There are plenty of free databases that have various sound effects and songs that can be used by anyone without fear of being copyright claimed. These are great options for those who cannot afford a full orchestra.  In fact, it has become so affordable, that there is actually no need to hire any music producers as everything can be done quickly and by a stagehand, or the director themselves. There are countless free videos on streaming sites like YouTube, that give directions on how to use certain software to create unique sounds and music. Even those that can be purchased are a fraction of the cost of hiring a full orchestra and a sheet music producer who can write unique and compelling sounds. Not all films that use synthesized music and sounds have a small budget, and yet big directors with more money still choose to use this style of music production to cut costs, this idea was expressed online when the author stated that “synthesized sounds are increasingly replacing real instruments in an effort to cut costs” (Alberge). Digital music, however, is not just used because of its affordability compared to the cost of full orchestras but because of its relatability to current film.

            Digital music is more relatable to the content and modern films being produced today than full orchestra noises. It is hard to argue the fact that film has changed drastically in the last few decades. The style of films is different and now are composed of various messages, characters, and even styles of humor. For example, in this current generation and for the last decade, one of the most popular genres of music is trap music. This style of music is rarely not touched up by digital enhancements and yet it is constantly being listened to by teenagers and young adults. This demographic is the one demographic that goes to see new films regularly.

Not only is this seen in popular music, but also in films. There are various times, especially in animated films, where popular music is playing. One of the most recent examples of this is in the film Spiderman: Into the spider-verse. In this film, there is one particular song by Post Malone that is played frequently. This song was created by the artist, who digitally enhances his music, for the purpose of this film. It is something current and relatable to the audience. This form of film is taking over the industry as more films compete against each other.

            Some people argue that orchestra in film is the only unique way to create music, but this is false, I can argue that digitalized and synthesized work is more unique than a full orchestra. This is because not only can digital music create the same sounds and use the same instruments as a full orchestra, but there are more variations in instruments and background beats. With how far technology has come with synthesized and digital music, it can be difficult to tell apart a synthesized orchestra and a real full orchestra played by performers. In one article titled, Can You Tell The Difference Between A Real Orchestra And A Synthesized One?, the author stated that “Synthesis has changed a lot since the days of Switched-On Bach – and it’s getting to the point that recordings of virtual instruments, and even virtual orchestras, are nearly indistinguishable from the “real” thing” (Synthhead). In this same article post, the author did something unique and brilliant. The author published two recordings and allowed for the people listening to the two recordings to choose which one sounded digitalized and which one was the real live orchestra. In the comment section, there were various responses and yet no overwhelming majority of one answer. This song/music piece was not a recreation of a different song, but one that was uniquely put together by a sound engineer.

            While it is obvious to me that digitalized music is here to stay and that orchestra is not being destroyed by synthesized music, others do not agree. Many feel as if there is no change to the music industry soon, then orchestra and performers will no longer be needed. One author argued that “It remains to be seen whether a generation raised making music with computers will become subscribers to concert series and purchasers of recordings of traditional music” (Kramer). This individual feels fear that because this generation was raised with digitalized music, it will have no need to use any instruments or learn about orchestral music in film. I think on the contrary, while it is true that synthesized music is more common in this generation, there are still music classes being taught in schools and outside programs. Interested students will not simply stop playing their instruments, especially when it is a known fact that there are directors who still prefer to use full orchestras in their production.

            In conclusion, the art of orchestra in film is not going away anytime soon. While it is true that digital music is more popular at this moment, there are still many directors, producers, and upcoming music students who appreciate full instruments that are real. While this is true, I also do not see an end soon to digital music in film. Instead, there will continue to be various options of what music directors can choose to utilize in their films. It is beginning to become harder and harder to tell apart ‘real’ ‘live’ music and digital music, just like how this same technology is creating realistic art and paintings (Kopiez et al.). Digital and synthesized music will allow for affordability, relatability, and unique sounds to be used in film. Those who do want to use orchestras can and will never be short of performers.


Works Cited

Alberge, Dayla. “Synthesisers Are Killing Film and TV Music, Say British Composers.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Dec. 2013, www.theguardian.com/music/2013/dec/15/electronicmusic-television.

Kopiez, Reinhard, et al. “Replacing the Orchestra? – The Discernibility of Sample Library and Live Orchestra Sounds.” PLOS ONE, vol. 11, no. 7, 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158324.

Kramer, Jonathon D. The Impact of Technology on the Musical Experience, 2020, www.music.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2675%3Athe-impact-of-technology-on-the-musical-experience&catid=220&Itemid=3665.

A Short History of Orchestral Music in Movies – Lubbock Symphony Orchestra, 2020, www.lubbocksymphony.org/index.php/239-sitemap/783-a-short-history-of-orchestral-music-in-movies.

Synthhead. “Can You Tell The Difference Between A Real Orchestra And A Synthesized One?” Synthtopia, 3 Nov. 2009, www.synthtopia.com/content/2009/11/03/can-you-tell-the-difference-between-a-real-orchestra-and-a-synthesized-one/.

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